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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Marcatili

What is copy editing? Editing step 2

Updated: Jun 4, 2021

In this second ‘what is’ mini-series, we’re taking a closer look at copy editing. As in the previous post, it’s worth noting that different editors take different approaches to their work. If you’re not exactly sure what type of service you need and what’s involved, talk to your editor.

Copy editing is the second step in a full editorial process. But since a lot of structural editing is done informally, a copy edit is sometimes the first encounter a writer has with an editor.

A copy edit should take place after all the content has been finalised and the structure is set. You’ll end up needing a lot of additional work done if you get a copy editor to complete their review and then, based on feedback received from others, make some major changes.

A copy editor is unlikely to suggest changes to the flow of a whole chapter or section of writing (unless it really needs some work). If they suggest changes to a paragraph, it might be to clarify an introductory sentence or to move some sentences around, but they’re unlikely to rework a paragraph as a whole (again, unless it’s really needed). Instead, the copy editor generally focuses on matters of consistency, clarity, and works at the sentence level.

What does a copy edit consider?

Since copy editors work at the sentence level, they’re mostly looking at issues relating to grammar, syntax, spelling, style, and so on. In other words, they read your writing and correct mistakes. But they also make sure the writing conforms to any requirements set by the publisher or the broader context of publication (for instance, checking the spelling applies to the US or Australian requirements).

A copy editor should also keep an eye out for a few other important aspects of writing. Making sure your sentence structure is clear and unambiguous is one important element of a copy edit. Checking for consistency in the use of language is also important – making sure terms are accurately used and spelled consistently. A check of formatting, either to ensure it’s in keeping with a style guide or just consistent across the whole document, is another element to copy editing. If you’re working with a more complex document, like a PhD thesis, a copy editor should be making sure headings, captions, tables and so on are all properly formatted and consistently numbered.

What type of changes does a copy editor make?

Copy edits will usually include changes made directly to your writing. If a sentence is unclear or a word is incorrectly used, expect the editor to re-write the sentence or replace the word you’ve used with a better one. This can be a bit overwhelming at first; chances are, there will be a lot of small edits and tweaks made to the document. Collectively they might look like a lot of changes. Many of these will be small issues of consistency or style, while others will be fixing the many errors every writer makes (no matter how often they read their work back).

A copy editor might also move sentences around, either to other places in the text or by restructuring the whole sentence. You can usually expect to see a comment explaining why a larger change like this might have been made, but if you’re unsure you can always ask.

The last big thing to expect in a copy edit is a lot of questions from the editor. These questions usually come in one of two types. Either the editor is genuinely unclear on a point in the writing and seeking further information so that they know whether or not a change is needed. The other is to prompt you to think about something you might not have. This could relate to the content, or your choice of words, or an unstated assumption in the writing. These questions help you think about what you might want to do to improve the overall text.

How does a copy editor communicate their changes?

Most copy editors these days make their changes electronically (the old on-the-page mark-up signs are much less common). That means you should expect to receive an electronic copy of your document with track changes and comments.

Track changes are a system built into Microsoft Word that lets an editor record every change they make to a document, and allows the author accept or reject those changes (find out more about them). If you get a Word document back from an editor and you can’t see these track changes, you might need to adjust your settings so that ‘All Mark-up’ is shown. It’s essential that the editor uses track changes while they work so that you have the ultimate decision over what is and isn’t changed in the document. Remember that essentially all edits from an editor are a form of suggestion—that you should probably pay very close attention to—but the ultimate responsibility of what’s in a text lies with the author.

Track changes make it quick and easy for you to review an editor’s changes, but they don’t work in all cases. For example, if an editor cannot make sense of your intended meaning in a sentence because a few words have been left out, they might make an educated assumption about what you mean and write a suggested word in. Or they might write an author query using Word’s comment tool. This is simply a question or comment the editor leaves for the author, prompting you as the writer to fill in the gaps.

Usually editors will combine both track changes and comments. They might re-write a whole sentence and insert a comment to explain why they did so. Another approach I often take, especially when there’s a larger change to be made, is to use a comment to explain the issue I’ve identified and then to offer one suggested re-write that would address the issue. It’s then up to the author to use my suggestion or write one of their own.

Academic copy editing

Academic works are often the most complex, with elements like images, tables, graphs, and multi-level headings. Consistency is essential in making sure all these elements work well together, and to top it off there’s a whole range of different publishing and referencing styles to keep track of depending on your field, your university, and even your faculty.

A copy editor will need to know exactly what type of referencing and publishing style you need to conform to, and will check your references – whether in text, footnotes or endnotes – for accuracy, consistency, and correct formation. The same goes for your bibliography. This is a time-consuming headache for many authors and being assured of getting the references right can often be enough of a reason for an academic writer to get a piece of work copy edited.

Business copy editing

An important element for businesses that are publishing – whether it’s social media posts, annual reports, or marketing content – is the organisation’s voice. This can be a really tricky thing for people to pick up, but a consistent brand voice helps ensure stakeholders recognise and trust the content being put out by an organisation. Good brand voices should be supported by an organisational style guide, and this is essential to get the most out of a copy editor. A good copy editor, whether they’re an internal employee or a freelancer, will apply the stipulations within the style guide with an understanding of the nuanced differences between, for example, writing a grant application and writing a report.

Creative copy editing

A copy editor is often the one to pick up on small inconsistencies, for example, in terms of things characters might say or do. If at the start of a paragraph you mention that the sun has just risen but then, three lines later, the character is wiping sweat off their brow in the midday heat, something has probably gone wrong. Or if in your second draft you renamed that side character, the copy editor will be the one to make sure any lingering uses of the old name have been picked up and changed. A big problem in a lot of creative writing is drifting between different tenses, or even from first to third point of view. Writing a sci fi novel and made up some pretty unusual character and place names? Copy editors usually keep a list of names as they’re reading and will check to make sure you’re always spelling them consistently throughout.


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